How to Overcome the Winter Blues

When the sun starts going down earlier in the day, you know winter is on its way. Not only does that bring on colder temperatures in most locations, but it also means we’ll have fewer hours of sunlight, which can have a big effect on our health.

The regular cycles of light and dark trigger the release of hormones that are associated with mood, energy, metabolism and more. Without enough sun exposure, levels of serotonin — the “good mood” transmitter — drop, which can bring on the winter blues. You may start to feel less energy or begin to crave sweets like chocolate cake and brownies.

How can you stay healthy and energetic during the winter months? Try the following tips.

The Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder

When you think about the winter blues, you may think about the seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but these are actually two different things. SAD is a form of clinical depression that comes and goes with the changing seasons, usually starting in the late fall and stopping during the spring and summer.

SAD is the same thing as depression, except that it follows a seasonal pattern. It affects all areas of a person’s life, making it harder to complete daily activities and interfering with work and relationships. Common symptoms include:

  • Significant fatigue
  • Pervasive sadness
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Sleeping too much
  • Overeating
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Struggling to perform at work
  • Gaining weight
  • Craving more starches and sweets
  • Having suicidal thoughts

The winter blues, on the other hand, are a milder form of seasonal mood change that affects a greater number of people. These individuals don’t meet the diagnostic criteria for full-blown depression, but they do experience similar symptoms at a mild to moderate level. A person with the winter blues, for example, may feel:

  • More tired than usual
  • A little gloomy
  • Less energetic than normal
  • Mentally lethargic
  • A longing for sweets and carbohydrates

The treatments for both conditions are similar, although individuals with SAD are more likely to recover when working with a therapist. Those suffering from the winter blues can usually feel better with self-treatment.

What If I Don’t Feel Sad?

You may think if you don’t feel sad during the winter months, you don’t have the winter blues — but think again! Reduced exposure to sunlight affects a number of bodily systems, including daily circadian rhythms, hormone production, appetite and emotion, and mood regulation.

Maybe you don’t feel sad, but does it seem like it takes a Herculean effort to resist that chocolate donut? Are you struggling to focus on your projects at work? Does your exercise routine seem harder and longer than usual? Do you tend to be irritable at the end of the day?

All of these can be signs of the winter blues and can be caused by lack of sunlight. Even if your productivity is down, or you find yourself gaining weight, the season could be to blame. That’s good news in a way because it means you can help yourself to feel better. Here’s how.

10 Ways to Beat the Winter Blues

1. Get Out into the Sunlight

This may not be easy to do when the temperatures are frigid, but the more you can expose yourself to natural light, the better you will feel. It will help boost serotonin levels and even out your circadian rhythms. Your best bet is to get a strong dose — 30 to 60 minutes — first thing in the morning as scientists say that’s the best way to keep your circadian rhythms healthy. Take an early morning walk or walk or bike to work.

If that’s impossible, try stepping outside on your lunch hour. Taking a walk when the sun is high can help you get some of the powerful light you need.

2. Look at the Bright Sky

You’re probably used to being told that you need to expose your skin to the sun for vitamin D production, but when trying to prevent the winter blues, you need to expose your eyes instead. As you look at the bright light, it triggers the release of serotonin and other important neurotransmitters that help keep your mood and energy levels high.

3. Use a Light Therapy Lamp

If you’re struggling to get out into the sunshine, you can try using a light therapy lamp for 30 to 60 minutes a day. However, be careful about which one you get as some don’t work as well as others. You want to find a lamp that produces a 10,000-lux light intensity and has a lit surface that’s at least 12 inches by 18 inches.

Lights smaller than this aren’t likely to get that light to your eyes where you need it. They may be cheaper, but they probably won’t help with the winter blues. Some examples of quality lamps include the Carex Day-Light Classic and the Sunbox SunRay II bright light therapy lamps.

4. Keep Moving

You may find it more difficult to motivate yourself to exercise during the colder months, but it’s one of the most effective treatments and preventatives for the winter blues. Like the sun, exercise releases neurotransmitters that boost your mood. It also helps increase energy and keep that winter weight off. Studies have found that exercise in the form of a simple daily walk improved symptoms of depression.

Try combining your morning sunlight exposure with your exercise routine. Exercise outside as much as you can — just bundle up. (We have tips for how to exercise in the cold weather in our previous post, “20 Tips to Keep You Safe and Warm During Winter Workouts.”) If you’re really struggling, recruit a friend or family member to go with you. They can help you brave the cold and can also make the exercise more fun.

5. Get Your Feet Tapping

Upbeat music helps boost mood. In a 2013 study, researchers found that people who wanted to boost their happiness succeeded when they listened to “happy” music, but failed when they listened to more “somber” music. Within two weeks of regularly listening to music and focusing on mood, they felt significantly better.

6. Get Involved in Cold Weather Fun

If you’ve ever been skiing, sledding, ice skating or snowshoeing, you know that the cold weather doesn’t have to keep you indoors and feeling blue. The more you embrace the season and find ways to enjoy it, the less likely you’ll be to feel down. Get yourself some equipment that will make it easier to enjoy the cold weather — warm boots, a warm coat and hat, some gloves and long underwear. When you’re bundled up and feeling warm, you mind that blowing snow.

7. Change Your Diet

You may be craving carbs and sweets, but you can change that if you turn to other mood-boosting foods instead. Try these:

  • Salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed: They’re all rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which support the brain’s ability to produce serotonin
  • Turkey, chicken, eggs, cheese, nuts, and seeds: They’re all good sources of tryptophan, which is required for serotonin production and also helps lift mood and ease stress
  • Kefir and Greek yogurt: These both deliver probiotics, which help balance the gut microbiome and may have a positive effect on symptoms of depression
  • Avocados: These are rich in B vitamins and potassium, which is a nutrient linked to increased production of serotonin
  • Butternut squash and sweet potatoes: These are so-called “complex carbohydrates” that take longer to break down in your system, so they’ll keep your energy levels consistent while filling your cravings for carbs; plus they’re in season in the later fall months

8. Get More Vitamin D

If you’re not getting out in the sunshine enough, you could be low on vitamin D. Scientists have discovered a link between depression and low levels of vitamin D. They’ve also found that vitamin D deficiency is prevalent across all age groups, even in the summer months. You can’t get enough from food so, add some vitamin D supplements to your morning routine.

9. Stay Social

You may be tempted to dive into the couch with your favorite blanket and binge on movies all day, but you need a time out with friends to keep your mood up. In 2013, scientists reported that “quality of social relationships is a major risk factor for major depression.” Those who reported lacking social support or having poor relationships were more likely to suffer from depression too.

Having good friends and spending time with them has been linked to a happier mood. The Mayo Clinic reports that good friends boost happiness and reduce stress while improving self-confidence and self-worth. “Happy” friends are particularly helpful as they’re good mood can rub off on you.

10. Plan a Winter Vacation

There are many benefits to planning a winter getaway. If you go to a warmer locale, you can boost your mood by increasing your exposure to sunlight. If you know you’ve got a sunny break coming up, that blowing blizzard may not seem so bad. Feel free to plan your getaway to a ski resort or other winter wonderland if you like.

Planning and anticipating that vacation can also help you to feel in a better mood all winter long. In a 2010 study, researchers found that vacationers reported a higher degree of happiness before they went on the trip than when they were actually on it, due to that giddy anticipation. So, why not create something you can look forward to?